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6 Jun 2008 : Column 1067

Mr. Love: I thank the hon. Gentleman for reading out the words of the former Prime Minister. My question relates to the commission that is being set up by the Government to consider the matter, to take a comprehensive view, to ask young people what they think and to resolve some of the differences of opinion between not parties but different Members. Does he see that as a positive move and will he contribute to it? Most importantly, will he accept the recommendations that it makes?

Mr. Harper: I am perfectly content with the Government’s proposals to set up a commission, although I would be interested to know how much it will cost taxpayers, hard-pressed as they are at the moment. I am perfectly content if the commission wants to carry out some investigations and I am content to look at its recommendations. I never say that I will take people’s recommendations in advance of their being made. One thing that voters of all ages expect MPs to do is to use their judgment and consider the merits of the case and the arguments and evidence from all sources. To say in advance that one will listen to the views of a certain group and follow them regardless is not very wise. The idea of the commission is perfectly sensible, and I am sure that the Minister will outline the remit of the commission and how it will conduct its work. I know that the chairman has been announced, and it will be interesting to see what conclusions it comes up with after consulting widely.

Mr. Kevan Jones: Is the hon. Gentleman, like me, sometimes cynical about reviews? We had the Electoral Commission review in 2003, which said in the conclusion that another review should be carried out within five to seven years. However, a lot of things that come out of the Electoral Commission do not make a great deal of common sense to anyone who is involved in democratic policies. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that a decision is needed one way or another? No matter how many reviews we have, we are going to have the diversity of views that we have heard in the debate.

Mr. Harper: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. One of the criticisms of the Government made by me and by the Opposition is that when a difficult question comes up, a review is often set up—

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con): Always.

Mr. Harper: My hon. Friend’s comment is probably right. I deliberately referred at the beginning of my speech to the ten-minute Bill. The House has already had the chance to consider the issue during this Parliament and has made a decision. It will be interesting to see what decision the House makes today, but I do not think that people can keep revisiting things until they get the answer they want. It would be sensible if the House considered the arguments, as they are worth looking at. However, the arguments in favour of the Bill are rather threadbare. The arguments made against change and for sticking with the status quo are, I think, much more compelling.

Mr. Jones: The review that started in 2003 reported, I think, in 2004. Does the hon. Gentleman think that not enough has changed in those four years to warrant yet another review?

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Mr. Harper: The hon. Gentleman is probably right. The hon. Member for Edmonton referred to the UN convention on the rights of the child’s having been signed and ratified in 1989. That was not that long ago, and I do not think that there has been the tremendous societal change that he has talked about. It will be helpful if the House makes a decision today so that the matter can be left, rather than considered ad infinitum.

There is no harm in a commission considering the matter, but the Government should not feel obligated to bring the issue back to the House every five minutes. This Parliament has had the opportunity to consider the subject once and today’s debate gives us the chance to consider it again. I certainly do not think that it is worth bringing the matter back to this Parliament for a third time. The House will have made its decision quite clearly after the debate today. On that note, I will allow others to engage in the debate.

11.37 am

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): May I say how pleased I am to follow the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper)? He covered a lot of ground and was generous in taking interventions. That was helpful, as it allowed us to prise out some of the arguments that we face today.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) on promoting this Bill. I steered a private Member’s Bill successfully through the House during the last Parliament, and I know the amount of hard work that goes into the preparation for these debates. Credit has to go to her for the cogent and strong way in which she put her arguments.

I want to concentrate on a few areas. The first is the history of the subject, and where we are today. The second concerns the international comparisons. The third is a broader issue, which is not only about the voting age but about how to engage people in the debate.

Clearly, there are strong views on either side of the argument for reducing the voting age to 16, as there were in 1969 when the Representation of the People Act reduced the age from 21 to 18. One could say that that heralded the change. I do not come at the subject with strong views either way. I feel that if we reduced the age to 16—this point has already been made—we might have another attempt to reduce it to 15 or even lower. We need to be careful that we do not end up with an annual debate.

Mr. Love: I have heard that argument repeated several times today. Surely a debate on the essential issue of who has the right to vote and who does not, and the reasons for those decisions, are a critical part of our democracy. It should not be something that we run away from. We come back, year after year, to the second House in Parliament. Is not it essential that we have debates such as this? What do we have to be scared of?

Mr. Jones: I am not scared of any debates. I think that it is an issue that we should discuss in each Parliament. It should be reviewed. The problem I have is that, if we reduce the age to 16, will we then not settle on 16, but go further down? I agree with my hon. Friend: I would not oppose the debate taking place. However, if we move to 16, would we continue to reduce the age to, for
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example, as some have suggested, the age of criminal responsibility, which is 10? I do not think that that would be very favourable either.

I am not opposed to debate, but the weakest of the arguments being made is the one about turnout. The idea is that, if we are to engage young people in the electoral process, reducing the age to 16 would mean that they all flocked to the ballot boxes and started voting in local elections. I will refer later to the wider problem, which is not necessarily down to young people. Different sections of society are not voting. We should take certain steps to make it easier for people to vote, irrespective of their age, but I do not think for one minute that age is an issue that will increase turnout. I refer to the example of the Isle of Man that was cited earlier. Young people there were given the opportunity to register, but most of them did not. However, to make voting easier, we must look at systems such as postal voting and others.

Like the hon. Member for Forest of Dean, I visit many schools and enjoy engaging and talking with young people, in both primary and secondary schools. In the seven years I have been in the House, this issue has never come up during one of the school visits that I have taken part in. I have had a host of issues raised about local issues that affect young people in the county of Durham, and those people are quite engaged with some national topics. As I said in an intervention on the hon. Gentleman, I think we all keep a tally of the main issues that affect our constituents. As I said, saving the whale was the top issue that people wrote to me about. Then came the campaign against bearskins being used by the Grenadier Guards. As for the third issue, may I put it on the record that I was not suggesting that people write to me to support the clubbing to death of seals? People were voting to oppose the clubbing to death of Canadian seals. However, voting age has never been raised with me by young people in my constituency, either directly or in writing, and most right hon. and hon. Members get not only a daily postbag now but an e-mail box full of our constituents’ opinions.

Mr. Evans: I agree with the hon. Gentleman. From recollection, I have not received one letter on the subject in 16 years. Perhaps there was one; let us play on the safe side. I find it interesting that, when young people met in the House of Lords the other day—it was a great initiative and I would like to see it extended; I do not even see why we cannot use this Chamber for that kind of thing—one of the issues that came above giving the vote to 16-year-olds was the abolition of tuition fees. The interesting thing is that those aged 16 to 18 would be the next cohort to go into full-time education and would be liable to pay the tuition fees, so there would be a lot of unintended consequences if we went down that road.

Mr. Jones: There would be. I am possibly a bit more reactionary than the hon. Gentleman. I would not want this Chamber to be used by anyone who has not been elected; they should not be able to sit on these Benches if they have not been elected. The Chamber should not be used as some type of Chamber to be hired out to anyone who wants to come and play at being a parliamentarian, although I support the work that the
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UK Youth Parliament is doing, because it raises awareness of not only the activities of this House but local government and other things.

One argument for reducing the voting age to 16 is consistency: people can do other things at 16 so we should reduce the voting age to 16. Some of those other things have been mentioned: the right to leave home, to join the armed forces or receive social security benefits. However, I should like to clarify the issue about the armed forces. I have been a member of the Select Committee on Defence for seven years. In the previous Parliament, our Committee held an inquiry on the duty of care for 16 and 17-year-olds in the Army. People may be able to join the Army at 16, but their rights and abilities to do things are, rightly, quite tightly controlled. The parental responsibility is with the parent or, for those people who have left care to join the armed forces, with the armed forces. I do not think that it is a strong enough argument to say, “Because you can do these things, you should reduce the voting age to 16.”

We are getting a little schizophrenic in our approach to age. Earlier I mentioned the fact that we are increasing the age at which people can do things. I represent a rural constituency, and I take the point that the hon. Member for Forest of Dean made about raising the driving age, which would create a lot of difficulties in rural communities, although I support not only making provisional licences tougher, but, once people get their licences, imposing more restrictions on them. Therefore, we cannot have it both ways. We cannot argue for a reduction in the age at which people can vote for people to come to this House and then argue that they are not responsible enough to drive, use air weapons and everything else.

Mr. Harper: One welcome relatively recent change is the move to equalise the age at which one can vote and the age at which one can stand as a candidate for the House. I support that change: it is sensible for those two things to be drawn together. One danger of this move is that, if we were to reduce the voting age, we would again set up that disconnect where we said that people were old enough to choose Members of the House, but not old enough to be Members of the House. We would end up with either that disconnect or pressure building for 16-year-olds to be elected to the House. That would not be welcome, although I support equalising the age at 18.

Mr. Jones: I agree. I did support, and would again, the reducing of the age at which one can stand for the House to make it the same as the age at which one can vote, because otherwise there would be a disconnect, although I have not noticed a great groundswell of people standing for local office at 18. Having said that, if I remember rightly, the Conservative party now has a couple of 18-year-olds in Durham. I think that an 18-year-old, a very young lady, was elected in Willington. She was certainly under 21, although strangely, her leaflets did not mention the word “Conservative” at all. I do not know whether she got elected as a Conservative or an individual, but credit to her for standing as part of the democratic process.

Mrs. Laing: I will help the hon. Gentleman with his statistics. A 19-year-old woman was elected to Epping Forest district council just a few weeks ago, and she will be an excellent councillor.

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Mr. Jones: I congratulate that individual on her achievement, but I hope that she made it clear to the voters that she is a Conservative. The candidate in Willington in the County Durham local election put out glossy literature that did not mention the fact that she is a Conservative.

It is great that we now discuss citizenship, rights, responsibilities and democracy in schools. We sometimes reinvent things, because those topics were taught when I was at school, and I do not know why they went out of fashion. If people are to be full, rounded citizens, they should be able to understand not only democracy in Westminster but local government, which is important. When I visit schools, I am sometimes asked, “What is an MP? What is Parliament?” I reply that a school council is a mini-Parliament, because it involves people being elected and having the right to raise and argue their views.

Mr. Love: The first question in every school that I visit is: how much is a Member of Parliament paid? When that happens, the teachers get very embarrassed and say, “We told them not to ask that question,” which is, of course, why the children asked it. Has my hon. Friend shared my experience of always being pleasantly surprised by the maturity of the children, even those who are much younger than 16, and by the sophisticated questions that they ask their public representatives?

Mr. Jones: Children are increasingly sophisticated in what they know about civic life, and they are not afraid to put their views forcefully when we meet them. Like the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) and others, when I meet young people in not only schools but youth clubs and other places, I find that they are not shy about putting their views forward.

We have discussed whether people will join political parties. Across western Europe, joining political parties is going out of fashion, whether we like it or not. I am not sure whether reducing the age to 16 would lead to huge numbers of new members joining political parties. Many young people whom I have met are very passionate and very involved in a range of issues. They are usually involved in single-issue campaigns, which are part of the civic and democratic life that we want to encourage in this country.

Mr. Stewart Jackson: On engaging the energy and enthusiasm of young people, as far as I am aware, there are no plans at county, state or federal level to alter the voting age in the United States, yet we have seen a huge outpouring of enthusiasm for politics from young people who support either the Democrats or the Republicans. Surely that gives the lie to the idea that the voting age is the only important issue in engagement by young people in the political process.

Mr. Jones: People should be careful before they get too carried away by the primary system in the United States, because a very small percentage of people actually vote in primaries. It is possible that certain candidates in the United States have got carried away and believe that they have a larger block of votes behind them than is actually the case.

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The crucial factor in relation to turnout is whether the vote is tight. If there is a closely fought local election between different political parties, turnout goes up. When I was a member of Newcastle city council, the Liberal Democrats tried to unseat me on three separate occasions. On the final occasion, we had the highest turnout in the city of Newcastle, which was about 44 per cent.—the good electors of the Walkergate ward were wise enough to re-elect me rather than electing the Liberal Democrat challenger. [ Interruption. ] The individual in question is no longer a member of the Liberal Democrats.

Mr. Love: I have to ask the question: did my hon. Friend get returned because of his views on whether people should be able to vote at 16?

Mr. Jones: No. It was a vicious campaign led by the Liberal Democrats, who wanted, for some reason—I cannot understand why—to unseat me from Newcastle city council. They failed.

The recent comparisons in respect of voter turnout are important. It is clear that people thought that the London mayoral election would be a close-run thing, and they turned out to vote. That had nothing at all to do with age. Furthermore, people thought that the Crewe and Nantwich by-election—I should not mention that, but I will—would be a tight-fought contest, and they turned out to vote. Let us explode the myth that lowering the voting age would do anything to increase turnout. It would not.

I suspect that the turnout for the next general election will be greater than those for previous elections because people will perceive—wrongly, I think—that the Conservative party has a chance of forming the next Government of this country. The pressures on people to vote are those that I have listed, and they do not include people’s age. We should not seek to change the voting age on the basis that doing so would somehow affect turnout.

I give credit none the less to the organisations that campaign for votes at 16. The coalition represents some good organisations, although having said that I see that the one at the top of my page of notes is the group Liberal Democrat Youth and Students. However, the coalition also includes the British Youth Council; the UK Youth Parliament; the Electoral Reform Society, although I give less credence to that; the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children; the Children’s Society; the Office of the Children’s Commissioner for London; the National Children’s Bureau; Barnardo’s; and Children’s Rights. What those organisations do is admirable.

I support children’s rights to protection and a safe and peaceful life, but we have to be careful about the notion that giving people votes at 16 would somehow advance the cause of children. I do not see the two as being connected in any way; I cannot honestly see that giving people votes at 16 will mean that key issues for 16 and 17-year-olds will be any further up the political agenda than they are now.

Again, I agree with the hon. Member for Forest of Dean. These days, parliamentarians of any political persuasion ignore any constituents at their peril, whether they agree with them or not. Let us be honest: as was said earlier, we are elected to represent everybody, even
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those who do not agree with us and vote against us at election time. I do not think that the voice of young people would be greatly enhanced by lowering the voting age.

The other mistake made by the campaign is this: it presumes that all 16-year-olds are necessarily interested in the same thing, and that 16-year-olds in my constituency, in Cardiff and in London necessarily have one thing in common. They do not, and it is a mistake to think of them as a block of people who would turn out and argue for a certain thing. Like the rest of the population, 16-year-olds have different views on different issues. It is important to recognise that, rather than thinking that votes at 16 would mean that another block of people would suddenly come up and argue for a set number of issues.

Mr. Harper: It is interesting to consider the Electoral Commission’s report, which concluded that the voting age should not be changed. It stated that

that is, us—

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